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ET STAY HOME: HOW WE ALIENIZE THE OTHER

December 27, 2016

 

You don't need ET to arrive to have the kinds of alien politics depicted in Arrival.

 

Sometimes a Hollywood movie presciently captures the broader social and political zeitgeist, and the sci-fi alien thriller Arrival landed in theatres just on cue as another outsider invasion descended on the U.S. capital.

 

Arrival opened on the day after U.S. President Obama hosted president-elect Trump at the White House. That meeting was the initial attempt to communicate between the first African-American President and the man who led the lie that Obama was an an other by birth, an alien of sorts.

 

In the movie, civilization is at stake and it's up to a world-leading linguist to find a way to communicate with squid-like extraterrestrials who've arrived in obelisk-shaped spaceships.

 

The linguist begins by holding-up a digital tablet with the handwritten word Human.

 

Sound familiar?

 

It's a scene that's strikingly reminiscent of the handmade posters that emerged from kitchens and living rooms and were marched onto the streets from Manhattan to Portland in the days after the stunning results of the American election.

 

After Trump's xenophobic, misogynistic and racist campaign the protest signs asserted something very basic: we are all human.

 

You don't need ET to arrive to have the kinds of alien politics depicted in Arrival.

 

As someone who writes about the effort to understand life in a cosmic context this has always been one of the most intriguing aspects.

 

The deep-seated cultural fears raised by the idea of contact with cosmic aliens are no different than those we face at home in dealing with contact with those deemed "the other".

 

In this sense, the challenge of "arrival" is a central to the human experience, from the arrival of Europeans in North America beginning in 1492 to this year's Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani and other migrants arriving in northern Europe.

 

With arrivals, we continually struggle to see each other as fully human--whether the foreigner, the other gender, other sexual orientation, other religion or other skin colour.

 

We alienize one another.

 

Once when travelling to visit a radio telescope at Kitt Peak in the Arizona desert, 50-kilometers north of the Mexican border, I arrived at a highway checkpoint staffed by heavily armed U.S. Border Patrol agents, and a sign warning of a search for "illegal aliens". I was writing about the search to find our cosmic origins and kin, and was met with the hunt for aliens right here.

 

This astrophysical and immigration use of the word "alien" isn't just a case of linguistic intersection with no greater meaning.

 

I tour schools and libraries across North America with a one-eyed, four-armed alien puppet, Ambrosia. The show's ostensibly about the current amazing search for an Earth-like planet around another a star other than our Sun, an alien Earth.

 

Yet the most interesting discussions are always about how kids feel about the alien puppet. Inevitably during the Q&A a child asks Ambrosia why she has one eye, or four arms. The puppets response is to ask the child why she or he has two eyes and two arms, which Ambrosia admits, is kind of weird.

 

This discussion elicits a strong response from some kids in the audience. They point and shout that it's Ambrosia who's the alien, not them. She's the other.

 

I could get into an evolutionary discussion and talk about adaptation to different environments. But that's not the point.

 

We don't want to explain our difference. We just are different. The why is immaterial at this level.

 

Safe explanation can only follow initial acceptance. We need to be seen as fully human.

 

It's notable that Arrival's producers tapped Canadian Denis Villeneuve to direct.

 

The 49-year-old Quebecker grew-up immersed in the era of Quebec language-politics and fundamental questions of identity as it relates to the other.

 

And Villeneuve grabbed attention as a director with his 2010 film Polytechnique about the hate and fear-driven 1998 Montreal massacre of 14 female university students, a classic murderous-tragedy of blaming the other.

 

In Arrival, the linguist knows that her fundamental communications challenge if she's to save Earth is not simply to decipher the visitor's language, but to acknowledge them as cosmic cousins, as fellow cosmic beings.

 

We are seeing in American politics that this is enormously difficult on Earth, let alone with another planetary civilization.

 

 

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